"The basic story of the hero's journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life." – Joseph Campbell
When I was a little girl, my mother and her best friends would hang out in the living room listening to bolero, a genre of Latin American music that I would best categorize as blues meets Michael Bolton love songs on crack. They would sit on the floor, drink Hennessy and Coke, smoke cigarettes, share secrets, laugh, cry, all to record after record (and I do mean vinyl) of Jose Jose, Julio Iglesias, Rocio Durcal to name a few of the stars of bolero. They would also clean the house to this music on FULL BLAST, as if doing so was somehow a bit of brujeria, or magic, that would purge their toxic love affairs from their hearts. The songs were about love, hate, hope, loss, betrayal, revenge. Sometimes the lyrics were about sex, veiled in the most romantic metaphors …honestly the stuff was and still is hawt!, and subconsciously, it was a huge part of my formative years and who I became and still am to this day.
The first book on Eastern Philosophy I ever read was “My Lord Loves a Pure Heart” by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. It BLEW.ME.AWAY. And also intimidated the hell out of me. It is still one of the most important spiritual books I’ve ever read; one of those that flips a switch in your mind about another way to think and be and changes how you see everything. But it is literally about "divine virtues" and its message, while amazing, felt SOOO lofty and out of reach.
At the time, circa 2004, I had already been practicing yoga on and off for about 7 years, and it was recommended to me by an Anusara teacher named Cari Friedman, who I totally idolized. Lying in savasana at the end of her classes, I’d have these huge insights and aha moments, linking patterns in my practice with patterns in my life. Sharing the experience and insights from class and the book with a friend, she suggested I consider yoga teacher training but I waved it away immediately: ME? No way.
I should pause here to say that by this point, my life had become a bolero song. It was now me sitting in my studio apartment kitchen, listening to Jose Jose or Luis Miguel, smoking cigarettes and polishing off a full bottle of cheap merlot, calling my best friend crying about my toxic love affair. This is part of what had brought me to Cari’s classes in the first place. Wanting a respite from my mind and my overwhelming emotions.
So, in my head, to be a yoga teacher, you had to be gentle and zen like Cari…or lofty and "good" , full of the virtues Swami Chidvilasananda described. Definitely not the hot mess, passionate, romantic Latina child of bolero I identified as: reactive, emotional, addicted to drama, attached to material things, to my love affairs, to my habit of binge drinking among other things- and really just TOO MUCH. And even though the promises of yoga- peace and enlightenment for starters- definitely pulled at my soul strings, I could not see how I could ever reach them, let alone teach them.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t ready. I needed to hit rock bottom, and that wouldn’t happen for another 8 or 9 years or so of total attachment to this idea of myself as the Latina Carrie Bradshaw, looking for love in a lot of wrong places, partying to escape any hint of my traumas, and honestly, having a good time for a lot of it which is why the rock bottom took so long.
When it arrived, I was so, so lucky that the universe pushed me back on my mat again. It was one of the only places that allowed me to get away from the darkness that threatened to swallow me whole. And it placed me before teachers who were authentic and encouraging, like Sarah Granato…and later in teacher training, ones who were transparent about their flaws and yet so so brilliant- like Kelly Morris who I ride hard with for life because she changed mine, and then Livia Shapiro whose work nourished me so profoundly and continues to inspire me on the daily, and now Christina Sell, whose teachings challenge me physically, but more than that, the real challenge her teaching offers me is to embrace wholeness instead of perfection, a feat easier said than done, but one that saves me literally everyday. (read her book https://hohmpress.com/books-hohm-press/A-Deeper-Yoga.html and have your life changed).
Thanks to the grace of the divine forces that led my heart to want to learn from these amazing women, I learned that contrary to what I had thought for so long, it isn't about being one thing or another, or about yoga as a cure to all that is "wrong" (and please insert any other spiritual path or word in place of yoga, as I think we do it with many things in life). I learned that while you may experience states of nirvana, periods of “zen” and may even come very close to moments of perfection on the spiritual path, there is no arrival at some permanent state of any of these and in the end, the real work and gift and blessing is in finding, amidst regular everyday life, with its regular every day cycles and ups and downs, that wholeness my teachers talked about, that integration or union that is the definition of the word yoga; that coming back to "normal" life after the hero's journey, that Joseph Campbell describes.
I learned that there isn't some road to “good enough”, because we are, innately, already there. And more importantly, I learned that I could still be the passionate, romantic Latina I had always been, in fact I could be her more fully, more wholly, and more lovingly because of the tools of this practice. That I didn't have to be one or the other- but could integrate both.
That enlightenment can be many things and among them, it is as simple as, what Tara Brach calls, Radical Acceptance of ourselves and our lives in the moment, with deep compassion. That the heart of this practice lies there. Not in standing on our heads or meditating for an hour- not in some temporary “zen” state, though there is great wisdom and skill to be explored in those practices and experiences- but that without the acceptance and compassion for self, they are empty. And ultimately, that I DID have something to offer others in my teaching: example and service. That same example and help I’ve gotten from my teachers and from this practice, I can now, as a Latina yoga teacher, offer to others, and especially to other people of color who might also be thinking: “that’s not for me…I’m too______(fill in the blanks).”
So here I am. 20+ years of practice, and 5 years of teaching later, and I have been known to give a really crazy aggressive driver the finger a time or 2 as opposed to all the time, which is what it would have been years ago. I’ve been known to react at the Thanksgiving table when I get triggered, but I’m no longer storming out with a giant chip on my shoulder and a closed heart. Sometimes I have one more drink than I should have on nights out but that happens less and less. I still believe in big love and hope it finds me, and I still listen to bolero music on rainy nights and remember my love affairs with rose colored glasses.
I also recover more quickly from bouts of depression and think a hell of a lot more before I speak. I ask for help when I need it. I give help when I can. I try to choose more carefully and considerately. I forgive more easily. I try really hard to be kind. I fail more than I'd like, but I don't punish myself for it and I keep trying. I let go A LOT. Over and over. And I find gratitude constantly.
So am I zen? Nah! But I like to think that I'm better than zen: I'm real...I'm whole.